Turn on CMT and wait for a video by Keith Urban, Jack Ingram, Big and Rich or Rockie Lynne. Mute the volume. Now unearth your ’80s hair-metal collection from the bottom shelf and give that blacklisted Bon Jovi or Warrant disc a fresh spin. Winger or Poison will do, too.
Don’t worry about the opener; go straight to the power ballad. Trust me.
When I attempted this little experiment recently, it worked amazingly well. I took in a fist-pumping festival of hair, broken-in denim and worn-out cowboy boots, heartfelt vocals and steroid-ified hooks. Zero tolerance for shoe-gazing or hipster irony. Alright, I found no overt traces of hairspray or spandex. No sleaze. Still, sound and image clicked almost seamlessly. It rocked.
Is country the new hair-metal?
I need some answers now, especially since my favorite veteran pop-metal act Bon Jovi just scored it’s first CMT award for the video to the country top 5 hit “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” a duet with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles… and this only months after country singer Chris Cagle recorded Bon Jovi’s stadium western “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” That’s a lot to digest.
But hair-metal has long been a sizzling undercurrent of country-pop — and it’s time to connect the dots.
As we will tell our kids someday, the decadent ’80s hair-metal genre imploded when Kurt Cobain gate-crashed MTV with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” sporting an old pajama top and spitting out two-note guitar solos. All it took was four sloppy chords and raw emotion had wiped out vain pyrotechnics. The party was over. The fireworks died in mid-air. Over night, Aqua Net was declared America’s most dangerous drug. Suddenly reduced to a fake neon stain on an organic flannel shirt, hair-metal was shunned and sneered during most of the grunge-driven 1990s, blocked out like the sore image of an embarrassingly loud yearbook photo. Around the world, hair-band aficionados silently moved discs to the bottom shelf and forced themselves into baggy fatigue pants, if reluctantly.
In these darkly melancholic hours, who could have guessed that one day the Sunset Strip would rise again on Music Row? Perhaps the biggest story never told is that many exiled hair-rockers found shelter in Nashville, where they quietly worked their way into the fabric of country-pop. In Nashville, faded denim and cowboy boots still ruled without irony and country was yearning to rock, longing to overcome the dull days where Garth Brooks ruled with the valium charm of an Idaho strip mall. Hair-rocking under the radar for years, the spandex vets just kept doing what they did best: write giant hooks and big-hearted power ballads, throw in soaring shut-eyed guitar solos and try to get away with it. They did.
Last year, Bret Michaels, frontman of Poison (“Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”), snagged a seat on the jury of “Nashville Star” (USA Network), relaunching himself as a true Nashville expert. Another hairspray hero, Cinderella’s Tom Keifer (“Gypsy Road”), is still working on a solo album in Nashville where he moved to in the mid-90s, not very far from hair vocalist Mark Slaugher of Slaughter (“Up All Night”).
One of their neighbors is producer Dann Huff, mastermind of hair band Giant, who has been churning out hit after hit after hit for Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts and Trace Adkins. To keep in shape –- believe it or not — country’s hottest producer regularly sprinkles in albums with metal gods Megadeth. Yes, it’s true.
Svengali John “Mutt” Lange also deserves his own paragraph. In the ’80s, Lange was the arena-rock producer par excellence, hooking millions with Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” two of the best-selling albums of the decade. In 1993 — just in time — he fell in love with Shania Twain and discovered his inner honky tonk stadium. But marrying Shania wasn’t enough for “Mutt”; he also had to direct her country-pop manifesto “Come On Over,” which became the best-selling album of the ’90s with 15.4 million U.S. copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Whoo-ahhh, we’re half way there: Jon Bon Jovi and his country doppelgänger Keith Urban today share the same producer, hitmaker John Shanks. It was very confusing to me at first, but it all makes sense to me now. After all, it was Jonny himself who sang to us as early as 1986, “I’m a cowboy / On a steel horse I ride.”
Country rocks, sorta. At least it looks like it does. Ever since its hair-metal makeover, country has been breaking records, toppling radio stations, crossing over and selling out stadiums. And wherever possible (sorry, Toby and Kenny), new hair is sprouting all over Nashville. If we give it a few months, it’s possible that generous blasts of Aqua Net will be heard backstage next to slide guitar-swirls and proud Southern twangs. Rascal Flatts might even work one or two umlauts into the bandname.
“Who cares?” you might say, and you’re probably right. But don’t forget to turn off that Warrant CD. It’s stuck on “repeat.”